Biblical scholar Peter Enns has been one of the more influential figures in the progressive wing of American Evangelical Protestantism in the last decade or so. In 2005, he poked the proverbial hornets nest of Evangelicalism by publishing the book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (1). Enns is an Old Testament scholar who studied for his doctorate at Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (2).
While for some time now Evangelical biblical scholars (especially OT scholars) have interacted with the wider world of academia in the field of biblical studies, few if any had sought to give theological answers for the questions raised by this biblical scholarship. Enns sought to remedy this void with his book by exploring the questions raised by such issues as the parallels between OT literature and other Ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological literature, the theological diversity of the OT (meaning differing perspectives within the Bible), and the New Testament authors’ use of the OT (seeming to take it out of its original context). His unifying theory in the book is applying the analogy of Christ’s incarnation (fully divine and fully human) to the Scriptures. Rather than being completely or nearly completely divine (the “conservative” position) or being completely or nearly completely human (the “liberal” position), the Bible is also fully divine and fully human. What this means is that the Bible is completely “divine,” in that it is God’s self-revelation to His people, not just a religious group’s self-reflection on their own experiences with God. This also means that is is fully “human,” in that the authors were acting fully within their own limitations of their own cultural trappings and assumptions and worked within their own available literary categories and conventions. (1)
An example of how this analogy might work is that one could understand Genesis chapter one as fully communicating truth about Israel’s God who is the creator of the world while at the same time understanding that the author communicated using the available literary categories (i.e. mythology) and worked with his own cultural understanding about the nature and structure of the cosmos (i.e. an understanding not reconcilable with current scientific knowledge).
Enns ended up paying for this poking of the hornets nest by losing his job at his his alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary, which determined that the positions in Inspiration and Incarnation were not in accord with their own views on Scripture (3). He since has worked with BioLogos, a group that seeks to contribute to the dialogue between science and faith (promoting something of a theistic evolution view) (4). He is currently teaching at Eastern University(5).
Enns was particularly influential in my own theological journey as I made my way out of Evangelicalism, and eventually ended up joining the Catholic church (a decision that I am still tremendously happy about). He is particularly influential in the segment of Evangelicalism that has come to question aspects of their Evangelical heritage and is willing to explore new options theologically. Sometimes these new options are on the border of what can realistically be called Evangelicalism, but the task of defining that movement is known for being an especially difficult one as there is no authority to define it’s boundaries. If you’re not sure who these “post-Evangelical” people are, just check their bookshelves to see how many N.T. Wright books they own, and ask them how they feel about Mark Driscoll (6).
While not discussed as explicitly in the book, one key concept behind Enns understanding of Scripture is that of God’s condescension. The word condescension here is not used to mean “looking down at someone judgmentally,” as it often is used to mean. Rather, it means that when God revealed Himself in the Scripture, he stepped down onto our level. He took His infinite wisdom and communicated it to us in human words in ways that we would understand. To go back to the example of Genesis chapter one, God used ways of communicating and paradigms that made sense to people at that time in order to communicate truth about Himself to the ancient Israelites. He lowered himself to their level. When we miss this point and approach Genesis chapter one as if it were a piece of timeless truth that will fit seamlessly into our current scientific understanding of the universe, we run into problems.
While Enns stresses in his book that the incarnational analogy he employs is not new and unique, having grown up within Evangelicalism, it was the first time I had ever heard it. Evangelicalism tends to stress the “divine” aspect of Scripture without any emphasis on its historical and cultural context. However, since joining the Catholic church and becoming more familiar with Catholic theology, I have realized that this incarnational understanding of Scripture and the idea of the condescension of Scripture are in no way unique to Enns, but a part of the Catholic tradition as well.
The second Vatican council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (The Word of God) (1965) says this:
In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men. (7) (Chapter 3, paragraph 13)
In 1942, Pope Pius XII wrote these words, quoting the “Angelic Doctor” (St. Thomas Aquinas) in his papal encyclical (teaching letter) Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit)
… no one, who has a correct idea of biblical inspiration, will be surprised to find, even in the Sacred Writers, as in other ancient authors, certain fixed ways of expounding and narrating, certain definite idioms, especially of a kind peculiar to the Semitic tongues, so-called approximations, and certain hyperbolical modes of expression, nay, at times, even paradoxical, which even help to impress the ideas more deeply on the mind. For of the modes of expression which, among ancient peoples, and especially those of the East, human language used to express its thought, none is excluded from the Sacred Books, provided the way of speaking adopted in no wise contradicts the holiness and truth of God, as, with his customary wisdom, the Angelic Doctor already observed in these words: “In Scripture divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use amongst men.” For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, “except sin,” so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. In this consists that “condescension” of the God of providence, which St. John Chrysostom extolled with the highest praise and repeatedly declared to be found in the Sacred Books. (8) (paragraph 37)
Even the Church Father Origen (184-253) wrote that God…
…condescends and accommodates himself to our weaknesses, like a schoolmaster talking a “little language” to his children, like a father caring for his own children and adopting their ways. (9) (quoted in the Introduction to the 2010 edition of the journal Letter and Spirit, by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology)
While acknowledgement of the “humanity” of Scripture tends to be viewed suspiciously within Evangelicalism, it seems to me that God sending His self-revelation in a form that is fully human, fully participating in the culture it comes from with all its limitations and unique forms of communication, rather than sending it in the form of a systematic book of timeless truths, is an expression of just how far He is willing to go to “condescend” to our level and reach us where we are, just as He was willing to come in person and take on flesh to meet us where we are, in order to bring us where He is.